Reading the Comics, March 21, 2020: Pragmatic Calculations Edition


There were a handful of other comic strips last week. If they have a common theme (and I’ll try to drag one out) it’s that they circle around pragmatism. Not just using mathematics in the real world but the fussy stuff of what you can calculate and what you can use a calculation for.

And, again, I am hosting the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival this month. If you’ve run across any online tool that teaches mathematics, or highlights some delightful feature of mathematics? Please, let me know about it here, and let me know what of your own projects I should feature with it. The goal is to share things about mathematics that helped you understand more of it. Even if you think it’s a slight thing (“who cares if you can tell whether a number’s divisible by 11 by counting the digits right?”) don’t worry. Slight things count. Speaking of which …

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 20th has a kid ask about one of those add-the-digits divisibility tests. What happens if the number is too big to add up all the digits? In some sense, the question is meaningless. We can imagine finding the sum of digits no matter how many digits there are. At least if there are finitely many digits.

But there is a serious mathematical question here. We accept the existence of numbers so big no human being could ever know their precise value. At least, we accept they exist in the same way that “4” exists. If a computation can’t actually be finished, then, does it actually mean anything? And if we can’t figure a way to shorten the calculation, the way we can usually turn the infinitely-long sum of a series into a neat little formula?

Kid: 'A number is divisible by 3 if the sum of its digits is divisible by 3. But what if the number is so big there's too many digits to add up easily?' Frazz: 'If it's that big, the 1 or 2 left over isn't going to matter much.' Kid: 'Why don't they teach THAT kind of math more in school?' Frazz: 'I guess there's only jobs for so many songwriters, cartoonists, and janitors.'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 20th of March, 2020. Essays featuring some topic raised by Frazz should be gathered at this link.

This gets into some cutting-edge mathematics. For calculations, some. But also, importantly, for proofs. A proof is, really, a convincing argument that something is true. The ideal of this is a completely filled-out string of logical deductions. These will take a long while. But, as long as it takes finitely many steps to complete, we normally accept the proof as done. We can imagine proofs that take more steps to complete than could possibly be thought out, or checked, or confirmed. We, living in the days after Gödel, are aware of the idea that there are statements which are true but unprovable. This is not that. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems tell us about statements that a deductive system can’t address. This is different. This is things that could be proven true (or false), if only the universe were more vast than it is.

There are logicians who work on the problem of what too-long-for-the-universe proofs can mean. Or even what infinitely long proofs can mean, if we allow those. And how they challenge our ideas of what “proof” and “knowledge” and “truth” are. I am not among these people, though, and can’t tell you what interesting results they have concluded. I just want to let you know the kid in Frazz is asking a question you can get a spot in a mathematics or philosophy department pondering. I mean so far as it’s possible to get a spot in a mathematics or philosophy department.

Speaker at a podium: 'If one person kills someone, 50% of the people involved are victims. If 99 people kill someone, 1% of the people involved are victims. The percent of victims is given by V = the limit of K/x as x approachs infinity, where K is people killed and x is the number of people killed. Thus, for sufficiently large x, murder is a victimless crime. So, the bigger we make a war, the more ethical it becomes!'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th of March, 2020. I have many essays that mention something raised by this comic strip. The many things Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has given me to write about are at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th is a less heady topic. Its speaker is doing an ethical calculation. These sorts of things are easy to spin into awful conclusions. They treat things like suffering with the same tools that we use to address the rates of fluids mixing, or of video game statistics. This often seems to trivialize suffering, which we feel like we shouldn’t do.

This kind of calculation is often done, though. It’s rather a hallmark of utilitarianism to try writing an equation for an ethical question. It blends often more into economics, where the questions can seem less cruel even if they are still about questions of life and death. But as with any model, what you build into the model directs your results. The lecturer here supposes that guilt is diminished by involving more people. (This seems rather true to human psychology, though it’s likely more that the sense of individual responsibility dissolves in a large enough group. There are many other things at work, though, all complicated and interacting in nonlinear ways.) If we supposed that the important measure was responsibility for the killing, we would get that the more people involved in killing, the worse it is, and that a larger war only gets less and less ethical. (This also seems true to human psychology.)

Mamet: 'I figure I have about 14,000 remaining days of life. So what's the big deal if I want to spend ONE of those days goofing off? That still leaves me with 13,00 days!' Cobb: 'Maybe you could spend a couple of those days learning math.' Mamet: 'Wait, make that 12,000. I'll need one day to PLAN the goof-off day.'
Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked for the 20th of March, 2020. I’m surprised to learn this is a new tag for me. I’ve discussed the strip, it appears, only twice before, in 2012 and in 2015, before I tagged strips by name. All right. Well, this and future appearances by Deflocked will be at this link.

Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked for the 20th sees Mamet calculating how many days of life he expects to have left. There are roughly 1,100 days in three years, so, Mamet’s figuring on about 40 years of life. These kinds of calculation are often grim to consider. But we all have long-term plans that we would like to do (retirement, and its needed savings, are an important one) and there’s no making a meaningful plan without an idea of what the goals are.


This finally closes out the last week’s comic strips. Please stop in next week as I get to some more mathematics comics and the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. Thanks for reading.

Reading the Comics, November 18, 2017: Story Problems and Equation Blackboards Edition


It was a normal-paced week at Comic Strip Master Command. It was also one of those weeks that didn’t have anything from Comics Kingdom or Creators.Com. So I’m afraid you’ll all just have to click the links for strips you want to actually see. Sorry.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 12th has Jason and Marcus creating “mathic novels”. They, being a couple of mathematically-gifted smart people, credit mathematics knowledge with smartness. A “chiliagon” is a thousand-sided regular polygon that’s mostly of philosophical interest. A regular polygon with a thousand equal sides and a thousand equal angles looks like a circle. There’s really no way to draw one so that the human eye could see the whole figure and tell it apart from a circle. But if you can understand the idea of a regular polygon it seems like you can imagine a chilagon and see how that’s not a circle. So there’s some really easy geometry things that can’t be visualized, or at least not truly visualized, and just have to be reasoned with.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 12th is a story-problem-subversion joke. The joke’s good enough as it is, but the supposition of the problem is that the driving does cover fifty miles in an hour. This may not be the speed the car travels at the whole time of the problem. Mister Green is maybe speeding to make up for all the time spent travelling slower.

Brandon Sheffield and Dami Lee’s Hot Comics for Cool People for the 13th uses a blackboard full of equations to represent the deep thinking being done on a silly subject.

Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man for the 15th also uses a blackboard full of equations to represent the deep thinking being done on a less silly subject. It’s a really good-looking blackboard full of equations, by the way. Beyond the appearance of our old friend E = mc2 there’s a lot of stuff that looks like legitimate quantum mechanics symbols there. They’re at least not obvious nonsense, as best I can tell without the ability to zoom the image in. I wonder if Wheeler didn’t find a textbook and use some problems from it for the feeling of authenticity.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 16th is a story-problem subversion joke.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 18th talks about making a bet on the World Series, which wrapped up a couple weeks ago. It raises the question: can you bet on an already known outcome? Well, sure, you can bet on anything you like, given a willing partner. But there does seem to be something fundamentally different between betting on something whose outcome isn’t in principle knowable, such as the winner of the next World Series, and betting on something that could be known but happens not to be, such as the winner of the last. We see this expressed in questions like “is it true the 13th of a month is more likely to be Friday than any other day of the week?” If you know which month and year is under discussion the chance the 13th is Friday is either 1 or 0. But we mean something more like, if we don’t know what month and year it is, what’s the chance this is a month with a Friday the 13th? Something like this is at work in this World Series bet. (The Astros won the recently completed World Series.)

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th is also featured on some underemployed philosopher’s “Reading the Comics” WordPress blog and fair enough. Utilitarianism exists in an odd triple point, somewhere on the borders of ethics, economics, and mathematics. The idea that one could quantize the good or the utility or the happiness of society, and study how actions affect it, is a strong one. It fits very well the modern mindset that holds everything can be quantified even if we don’t know how to do it well just yet. And it appeals strongly to a mathematically-minded person since it sounds like pure reason. It’s not, of course, any more than any ethical scheme can be. But it sounds like the ethics a Vulcan would come up with and that appeals to a certain kind of person. (The comic is built on one of the implications of utilitarianism that makes it seem like the idea’s gone off the rails.)

There’s some mathematics symbols on The Utilitarian’s costume. The capital U on his face is probably too obvious to need explanation. The \sum u on his chest relies on some mathematical convention. For maybe a half-millennium now mathematicians have been using the capital sigma to mean “take a sum of things”. The things are whatever the expression after that symbol is. Usually, the Sigma will have something below and above which carries meaning. It says what the index is for the thing after the symbol, and what the bounds of the index are. Here, it’s not set. This is common enough, though, if this is understood from context. Or if it’s obvious. The small ‘u’ to the right suggests the utility of whatever’s thought about. (“Utility” being the name for the thing measured and maximized; it might be happiness, it might be general well-being, it might be the number of people alive.) So the symbols would suggest “take the sum of all the relevant utilities”. Which is the calculation that would be done in this case.